March 09, 2004

Thinking about History

Today's Washington Post features a fascinating article that casts doubt on claims that the current generation of American high school students is especially igorant of history:

A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

This doesn't, of course, mean that we shouldn't worry about Americans' ignorance of history. But it raises another question, as Wineburg points out: is fact retention really the key to historical understanding?

Now I'm very curious about Wineburg's journal article and book, which I may check out when my dissertation proposal hearing is out of the way this afternoon. (For a profile of Wineburg from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, click here.)

Posted by Ed at March 9, 2004 11:10 AM
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